In a fancy garden near here, the strange drama of the Conservative leadership contest approaches its climax
Last week, Rishi Sunak, currently trailing Liz Truss by 26 points in the contest that will produce a new leader of the Conservative Party (and, because of a mediaeval malfunction in the Parliamentary machinery, a Prime Minister too) was invited to visit the home of a wealthy Hertfordshire Conservative Councillor to speak to local party members.
Like a lot of what we’ve seen from around the country during the Tory leadership contest, the result is a kind of grim social comedy and very close to self-parody. The 100-odd Conservative members apparently present are out of shot. Artfully in shot is a sparkling swimming pool and, above it, a grand suburban villa.
How to discuss a scene like this, at a time when, according to one of the big energy companies, 50% of UK households are about to fall into fuel poverty? Absolutely no idea.
But it’s worth watching the video closely. It has a kind of anthropological value. We’re deep in the heartland of the Home Counties Tory elite here. On Sunak’s side of the pool, milling around, there’s a group of comfortable-looking Tory alpha males, including local grandees who’ve already secured a clutch of gongs and are thus in the home straight for a peerage whoever wins (you’ll have read about some of these guys in Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column). There’s at least one of those white straw hats you see at cricket matches.
In this suburban garden we see a snapshot of the context for everything promised by the two candidates in the last couple of months. All the dog whistles about lazy workers, ‘our women‘, tax cuts, grammar schools, deporting refugees and so on are for this powerful audience of ultra-Tory comedy caricatures and not for the wider British electorate. At a more recent hustings, for instance, we learn that frontrunner – and serving Foreign Secretary – Liz Truss is happy to toss Britain’s historic alliance with our nearest continental neighbour into the wood-chipper to win their votes.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t expect some genuinely loopy policies once the winner is in place, of course, but what emerges in the Autumn will certainly bear little resemblance to what we’ve seen during the contest.
Anyway, back in the garden, the candidate is introduced by our own MP Oliver Dowden – also in line for a peerage, of course, for his service to a sequence of PMs – although we suspect he’s got a few more years in the trenches before he’s sent up (and perhaps some time in the wilderness of the back benches too, given his lamentable judgement in backing Sunak over Truss). Dowden says: “Rishi’s got the skills, he’s got the energy, he’s got the vision to fire up our economy and on to a brighter future…”
Sunak opens by connecting his own story to the aspirations of his audience:
And just as our country did something wonderful for my family I want to do the same for everyone, for your children and grandchildren and make sure they have the same fantastic opportunities too.
He has a three-part prescription:
But how are we going to do that? Well, we need to do three things. We need to restore trust, we need to rebuild the economy and we need to reunite our country.
Remember, there’s a week more of this stuff before the polls close and another few days before the results are in and we begin to see how our new Prime Minister responds to the building poly-crisis of energy prices, the highest inflation (and slowest growth) in the G7, a tough season of industrial action and a long recession.
Since this short video was made Sunak and Truss have surely both stood in front of at least half a dozen other sparkling pools. Any sign of the candidates getting together to plan a response to the Winter energy crisis yet? No. Just the Chancellor advising pensioners to turn the thermostat down a bit.